The love child of a respected notary, Piero da Vinci, and a very young peasant woman named Caterina, Leonardo lived, for the first five years of his life, with his mother in the small hamlet of Anchino in the home pictured here, less than three kilometers from Vinci. When his mother remarried, his upbringing was carried out by his father and his stepmothers (Piero da Vinci had four wives altogether who gave him 15 children, the last born when Piero was in his sixties; Leonardo was his first born, before Piero ever married). Some biographies do intimate that Leonardo may have carried ill-feelings toward his mother, instilled no doubt if true, by what would seem as abandonment by a five year old.
The most profound, early influence in the young Leonardo's life was, however, his Uncle Francesco. Sixteen when Leonardo was born, he was a member of Piero's household, a true countryman and lover of animals, a love he passed along to his nephew. Upon Francesco's death in 1506, he made Leonardo his sole heir. Ironically, this genius more than likely had very little formal education due to his illegitimacy. His father would have ensured him some 'elementary' education, but Leonardo taught himself Latin, anatomy, and physics; he would practice autodidacticism for the whole of his life.
Leonardo's own journals, those he wrote throughout his adulthood, tell us of the second provocative event. When exploring the hills surrounding his father's country home, he discovered a cave. Though he was terrified by it--that some horrific monster lurked within--he could not restrain himself from exploring it, driven by a ravenous curiosity that would come to define him.
Whatever impression these events made on an highly intelligent youth, his talent as an artist must have made itself readily apparent from an early age. Tax records indicate that in 1466 Leonardo was more than likely living with his father in Florence--a move designed to put Leonardo in the realm of the rebirth and advancements of the artistic community there--in an apartment overlooking the city's main square, the Piazza della Signoria. That same year, when Leonardo was 14 years old, his father apprenticed Leonardo to the studio of Andreano di Cione, most popularly and still known as Verrocchio; his was one of the finest studios in the city, perhaps in all of Italy. Historical records indicate that in all likelihood Ser Piero was an acquaintance of Verrocchio; the hand of fate working with precision of purpose.
Yet Leonardo's artistic promises were, at first, somewhat bleak; in the custom of the era, he came to be apprenticed at a late age, nine or ten being the typical time to begin such work. But it did not take long for the talented and charming young man to make his presence known.
Leonardo was an elegant man, in pose and manner; courteous, mysterious and persuasive. His eloquence was to be his truth throughout his life. While most people, when thinking of Leonardo da Vinci, picture a craggy-faced old man, he was in fact considered one of the most handsome man of his age, some might say too beautiful. With long, flowing wavy hair the color of burnished gold, perfect refined bone structure, and blue-grey eyes, he was appealing and desired...by all. But his beauty would exact a price.
It did not take long, regardless of his late start, for Leonardo's remarkable talent to make itself known. Work produced by the studios of the era, though known by the name of the maestro, were carried out by the employees and apprentices of the workshop. It was in one such work that Leonardo's brilliance shined so brightly, it would, henceforth, be impossible to be denied. In Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ (pictured, 1472-1475, Uffizi Gallery), Leonardo collaborated with his master, painting the angel holding Jesus' robe. It was the most remarked upon, the most praised, segment of the painting. So much so that it is said Verrocchio never painted again. The apprentice had become the master. In 1472, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of St. Luke, the guild of artists.
But it was during these years, that Leonardo suffered the most personal of tribulations. In 1476, two allegations of sodomy were made against Leonardo, that he and two other men, a goldsmith and a male prostitute—such as were often used as artist’s models—had been party 'to wretched affairs and to pleasuring, each to the other, who requested such wickedness of him.' Both charges were dropped, but for the next two years, Leonardo's whereabouts were not precisely known, though most agree he never left Florence. It is a prevalent theory that Lorenzo de' Medici, then the controlling oligarch of Florence and an extreme patron of the artist and profound Humanist, took the young, troubled artist into his home. Leonardo never married; there are no known romantic relationships with women. His most enduring allegiances are with men. In his own words, from within his journals, Leonardo denounced love as an interference in the life of a true artist.
In 1478, Leonardo received the first of his independent commissions; from then on, he was unstoppable. Sometime in the next year or two, he opened his own studio. All told, there are at least fifteen verifiable works by da Vinci, most of them paintings on panels but also including a large mural. There are an additional six disputed paintings and four recently attributed works. Leonardo never signed his work and their ascription is due to hundreds of years of scholastic study and specification. Though most widely known for his Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, my personal favorites include one which is thought to be his earliest complete work, Annunciation (oil and tempera on canvas, 1472-1475, Uffizi) for its use of spatial relation, its composition, and its color.
But by far, the work of Leonardo that most touches my heart and my spirit is, in fact, an unfinished painting, a print of which hangs in my home, has done so for many years. Head of a Woman also known as La Scapigliata is dated in his mature years, near or during 1500. Now housed in the Galleria Nazionale of Parma, Italy, the first mention of it is within the Gonzaga Collection. In his rendering, I see the hand of a man who could see a person's deepest truths. In this woman's face, I found my own heartache--a companion in female tribulations, some one to share long, lonely nights filled with tears. In her swollen eyes, I saw my own and felt not alone.
Considered by many as the father of the High Renaissance style, one of Leonardo's most profound influences on painting was his introduction of the technique called sfumato, though he and his contemporaries did not give it this name. That was done by Micheal J. Gleb in his book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. The technique, one of four which defined the evolution of painting conceived in the Renaissance, used no distinct outlines to the subjects, they are blurred and blended together with the background by full brush strokes, giving the subjects a 'smoky' appearance. The literal translation of fumo in Italian is 'gone up in smoke.' Sfumato has since come to mean 'without lines or borders.' The proper use of the technique produces atmospheric perspective in paintings, an aspect previously not utilized, a facet and style of painting that would forever change the art, that took painting from the flat and lifeless renderings of the Middle Ages into the bursting with life Realism of the what we now call the Renaissance. Perhaps one of the best examples of Leonardo's use of sfumato is in The Virgin on the Rocks (oil on wood, Louvre, disputed dates between 1483 and 1490). Here visible is the mysterious and dreamlike mood the technique accomplishes: figures blend softly into the background, faces emerge from a muted environment, splashes of color become all the more vibrant.
In 1482 Leonardo abandoned Florence for Milan, whether from a lack of favor and commissions from the controlling Medici or for the want of different pastures. There he spent seventeen years--enormously productive years in the fields of both art and science--leaving only as the Duke Lodovico Sforza fell from power in 1499. But during those years, the Duke urged Leonardo onward, bringing out the best of the man, setting him to painting, sculpting, designing elaborate court festivals, weapons, buildings, and machinery. Leonardo's mind brought forth studies on geometry, mechanics, municipal construction such as canals, architecture from churches to fortresses, and yes, to flying machines. His workshop in Milan was a vortex of discovery and production as well as one of the most sort after homes for apprentices. It was here, in Milan, where The Last Supper was born and resides.
After the fall of Sforza, da Vinci traveled for many years, worked for a many and wide array of sponsors, including the despicable Cesare Borgia. His acquaintances included Niccolo Machiavelli and his travels took him as far as Constantinople. It was during these years that Leonardo's father passed and that Leonardo created the most enigmatic, most widely known painting in history, La Giaconda, or, as the world knows her, Mona Lisa.
For three years, from 1513 to 1516, Leonardo worked in Rome, ironically for Pope Clement VII, the son of the slain Giuliano de' Medici. It was in Rome that Leonardo took his anatomical studies to the extreme, doing so, as Michelangelo did in Florence, by dissecting cadavers. But the Pope looked unkindly on such a practice and forbade Leonardo to continue. The ever-reaching artist was ripe for the plucking by a powerful man obsessed with the best artists the world had to offer.
King Francois I (1494-1547, king of France from 1515 till his death) is, inarguable, the man we may look back to in gratitude for the museum now known as the Louvre, the once home of many a French king. So manic was Francois to have Leonardo, he granted da Vinci the station of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the king. Francois' patronage provided Leonardo with a stipend and a manor house in Amboise, close to the Royal Chateau.
Leonardo brought Mona Lisa with him.
The relationship these two men shared was one of profound empathetic intellectual and cultural curiosity, a love of what could be and the ability to see the beauty in all that was. Even after suffering a paralysis in his right hand (possibly from a stroke), Leonardo continued to sketch and draw and teach, living well under Francois' care.
Leonardo da Vinci died on May 2, 1519 in his home in Clos Luce. Legend holds that King Francois was by his side, cradling Leonardo's head in his arms as the artist passed.
"There had never been a man born who knew as much as Leonardo da Vinci," said Benevenuto Cellini, twenty years after da Vinci's passing.
What brought Leonardo the title of Renaissance man was his contributions to science, math, and architecture. He was a painter, sculptor, inventor, draftsman, musician, anatomist, inventor, and more, so very much more in terms of an example of the limitless possibilities of the human capability. As one of the great naturalists that ever lived, as a man who contributed to the betterment of all areas of life--especially in the realm of art--he is still revered and admired today, five hundred and sixty one years after his birth, deservedly so.
To this humble, striving artist, his inspiration--that from the smallest of seeds there may grow profound magnificence--will never be forgot, will forever be held in gratitude. I feel truly blessed to have him as a prominent character in my upcoming trilogy.
Happy Birthday, dear, dear unforgettable Leonardo!